The Role That Social Psychology Has Played In Creating Our Divided World*
Social psychologists, more than anyone, are aware of the consequences of putting people into groups, so why do they keep encouraging us to do it?
When I first introduce my students to the topic of social psychology, I usually set it in the context of the Second World War. I explain that many of European social psychology’s seminal studies and key thinkers were motivated (by personal connection to the Holocaust) to understand what would make humans commit such atrocities. No matter how many times I have this discussion, I feel emotional, not only because of the events themselves, but because I feel there can be few purer motives than those of trying to prevent hatred and the consequences of it. I truly feel that the post-war iteration of social psychology was born out of a genuine desire to make the world a better place.
However not even a century later, and the good intentions of social psychology seem to have disintegrated and been replaced by a fairly hell-bent desire to create as many divisions, and as much ill-will, between people as possible. Social psychology classes the world over teach students from certain groups to view any type of ambiguous (or even neutral) interaction as an insult or aggression. They claim that we are either aggressors (intentional or not) or victims — purely on the basis of the groups we happen to be part of. ‘Victims’ are encouraged to think of any interaction as a potential slight towards them, and ‘aggressors’ are taught that anything they do or don’t say or do is a potential insult.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking has not been confined to universities and has spilled over into wider society. Many work places have mandatory ‘Bias’ or ‘Equality’ training sessions where staff are told about the implicit biases (biases they weren’t aware that they had) they hold towards different groups. In these, comparable situations are interpreted differently depending on one’s group membership. For example, while asking where someone is from, or where they were born, is a normal polite topic of conversation, if it is addressed to a non-white person, it is now considered to be a racist comment.
This way of thinking is built on the idea that people experience disadvantage, discrimination, or are underrepresented in certain areas because of their group membership. The problem is of course, that there are any number of reasons that one may not get a job, be overlooked for promotion, be at the receiving end of negative interactions etc. It is a very large stretch, and one that needs all other variables to be controlled for, to assume that it is group membership alone that leads to disadvantage.
However, this doesn’t stop social psychologists — and those who want to believe this narrative, from assuming, and stating, that group membership is the explanation for many of society’s ills. For example, a popular claim is that women are underrepresented in certain industries or levels of employment, due to discrimination or ‘systemic’ sexism. In fact, recent evidence suggests that this is unlikely, and discrepancies may be due more to women’s choice rather than any barriers that are getting in their way. The issue is that 1. measuring discrepancies in numbers on their own is fairly meaningless, and 2. we can’t demonstrate evidence of discrimination without analysing and discounting all other explanations.
The same faulty reasoning was used after the unlawful death of George Floyd. Immediately, charges of racism were made against the police, despite the fact that there was no evidence of racism. Protestors and rioters argued that Floyd’s death was yet another example of ‘systemic racism ‘ in the US, and while some deaths may have racist motives, without controlling for other factors, we have no reason to believe that they were (see here for further discussion). Indeed, presenting them as such can do more damage — as victims of the aggression, rioting and looting by Black Lives Matter activists (and subsequent counter-protesters) will attest.
As a result, even if assumptions of group-based disadvantage were true, I would still argue that it may be unwise to address them at a group based-level, as the problems that result from viewing the world in terms of groups can outweigh any issues that may be solved. To return to institutional examples, evidence suggests that implicit bias or equality training can actually do more harm than good for group relations. This is of little wonder as anyone being told that they are to be held responsible for biases of which they are not even aware, might feel slightly wary of interacting with those they are apparently biased against. Furthermore, individuals may feel slightly resentful of being held responsible for other’s historical offences — a feeling that may (and seems to) lead to animosity and resentment.
Quite aside from the possible resentment and negativity caused by implicit bias training, what makes it all the more problematic is the faulty assumptions that it is built on (implicit bias has been shown to have little relationship to actual behaviour). We then find ourselves in a situation where a programme that is widely used and promoted on an international scale is not only ineffective in doing what it sets out to do (reduce discriminatory behaviour), it also encourages animosity towards said groups.
Similarly, the notion of ‘microaggressions’ is problematic, from both a theoretical and methodological point of view, and may also lead to those at the receiving end simply avoiding interaction with those from minority groups altogether. After all, any decent person would want to avoid upsetting or offending others, and based on these teachings, it seems impossible to do that. Similarly, none of us want to be labelled as bigots, especially when such a slur it is based on a genuinely well-intentioned attempt at interaction.
Based on this knowledge, as well as the evidence we see in the real world (animosity between ‘Millenials’ and ‘Boomers’, right and left, black and white etc.), one can not help but wonder why anyone would believe that pursuing a group-based narrative would be a good idea. However, many social psychologists continue to push many of the scientifically dubious claims cited above and also to attempt to persuade us that group membership is beneficial. This is despite the fact that social psychologists have been taught (as per the initial post-war work) that seeing oneself as a member of a group has a number of negative consequences including ingroup favouritism, groupthink, and outgroup derogation.
Indeed a recent wave of work (that I myself have unfortunately contributed to in the past) has been promoting the idea that group membership is a panacea for many forms of health concerns that ail us. This of course is appealing: the notion that we can reduce our risk of mental health problems, improve our immunity to disease, and even increase longevity, just by joining a group. However, as one can imagine, it’s not quite as straightforward as this. While groups can be beneficial for our health, it is more to the extent that we are having positive interactions with others (and the more others, the better) that they can influence our wellbeing in a positive way. While the argument is that it is the group aspect that is important, I would argue that actually it is detrimental for important aspects of human development such as thinking for oneself, creating one’s own personal sense of identity and therefore having a sense of autonomy, self-efficacy, and personal responsibility — all of which are crucial for psychological (and therefore by extension physical) health. Furthermore, I would argue that the harm that can be done to wider society through categorising others far outweighs the benefit to the individual, especially when the benefits can be gained through positive interaction with individuals — rather than groups.
I must highlight at this point that not all social psychologists promote the group based agenda — there are some who are trying very hard to overcome this divisive way of thinking. Unfortunately however, they are fighting a hard battle, facing attempts to censor, cancel or in some way silence them. The problem is that the groupthink amongst social psychologists is so strong that they are unable to cope with any challenges or alternatives to their narrative. The true irony is that they have fallen victim to their own theory — seeing themselves as a homogeneous group that understands and pursues the ‘correct’ way of living.
We see this way of thinking mirrored in many of the vocal groups in society — the dichotomous ‘if you aren’t with us, then you are against us’, and ‘if you don’t agree with us, then you are invalidating us and therefore not allowed to have an opinion’. Clearly, this does very little to encourage open and thoughtful discussion. If even the people who understand group processes are unable to cope with the notion of nuanced and subtle discussion, then how can we expect others to engage in it?
Ultimately, there are so many more things that unite us as human beings than divide us, and by concentrating on the latter, we are focusing on, and exaggerating the negative aspects of the human experience. When we look around the world today, would the post-war psychologists be impressed by the progress that had been made or would they be dismayed by the divisions and hatred they were seeing? As we know, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Based on this, I think we need to come together to fight those who insist on creating divisions, and instead, look for, and focus on our points of similarity. Only then can we think about trying to create a world where we can truly move forward — by doing so together.
* This piece was written before the ‘cancellation’ of a letter that Kirsty wrote to the BPS challenging the prevailing social justice ideology that has been encouraged and espoused by social psychologists. The letter was published but then cancelled due to outcry and accusations of ‘racism’ from society members